Gil Troy, who has just published The Zionist Ideas (and I will be attending the book launch in Jerusalem on May 23 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center; invitation only, I helped a bit to find material) has noted that “in North America today, liberal Jews face the prospect of voluntary extinction.”
Among the too many issues that they have chosen to be divisive on is that of Jerusalem. The major campaign of the Women of the Wall and its adoption as a central flag-waving concern of the Reform Movement has pitted the principles of nonreligious liberalism as a political philosophy against one of the most essential and defining topics at the core of Judaism not only as ethnicity or culture but religion.
There are three instances where the clash as a chasm becomes apparent.
The first is the question: What is the Western Wall?
For several centuries, the Wall (or Kotel)—no, not for more than 1,800 years—has been a place of prayer. For no other purpose did Jews assemble in that small courtyard. In the first centuries of the Muslim conquest and occupation of the city, Jews either assembled at the Eastern Wall or walked around, stopping at the various gates, which were much more accessible than when far fewer Arabs lived in the city.
In 1165, Maimonides, an icon for liberal Jews, ascended to the Temple Mount above to pray. Would liberal Jews do that today? Do they even support equal rights for Jews to those of Muslims within the Temple Mount? Or is that anathema for them?
The second is, more importantly, for what purpose was it built?
The Wall was constructed in a massive engineering feat at the time of Herod’s rule to expand the Temple Mount precincts which were, in fact, doubled, mainly in a north-south axis but also east-west. In other words, for all that custom has affected the Wall, it is secondary in importance to the area where the Temple was and, incidentally, where a Third Temple, according the prayers recited there, will be rebuilt. For example, in 363 C.E., Julian the Apostate granted permission for that to happen and facilitated early stages of construction until an earthquake occurred, halting the project.
So, in both past and future tenses, liberal Jews are faced with a major contradiction of self-identity. If the wall is for prayer and that prayer is for a Temple, what does the Wall really mean for them? And why are so many demanding equal rights there? In fact, that is somewhat a contradiction in terms. They want different rights. Their egalitarianism is not one of equality.
The third is a matter of modern geo-politics.
The Wall is in “East Jerusalem” all the U.N. resolutions have decided. Even the United States with its embassy move has not altered its refusal to recognize the city as completely sovereign Israel.
As U.S. President Donald Trump announced at the time:
“I also want to make one point very clear. … We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
Be that as it may, demanding in the name of their liberalism rights and privileges at the Wall is, in many cases, flying in the face of their position that Israel must withdraw from “1967 occupied territories.” Of course, if they believe that access arrangements with the Arabs are workable (recall 1948-67, when Jordan was supposed to permit access, Article VIII 2), then “liberal” is not an adequate description of their thinking—not even “progressive” but quite regressive.
Do they not grasp that at the heart of the Arab claim, supported by the United Nations, that the city cannot be considered as united is the dislodging of Jews from that part of the city that provides our historical, legal and religio-cultural rights to be in the city at all? They want us to remove the “Zion,” which is Jerusalem, from Zionism and a liberal/progressive outlook assist that act of betrayal.
That they abhor Jewish demands to be able to pray at a location where “obscurantists” refuse them entry—the Temple Mount—but in a turnabout demand to be treated at the Western Wall in quite a different fashion is more than hypocrisy, but an attempt to make their irrationalism rational.
It is time to accept what Jerusalem truly is: a unifying force, despite the divisions. It is time to remake it our greatest joy.
Yisrael Medad is an American-born Israeli journalist and author.